While everyone's enjoying a fun NHL post-season, after witnessing the incredible OT finish in game 5 of Gagarin Cup Finals earlier today, I thought I'd give you an update on KHL playoffs and what's been happening over there.
Of all the laughable reasons legitimately good players were left off Russian Olympic team, deeming Sergei Mozyakin "too slow" and "one-dimensional" has got to take the cake. I know that he might be a relative unknown here, but he is easily the greatest hockey player who never played in the NHL (although Alex Radulov typically had that designation). KHL's all-time leading scorer promptly put the snub behind him and proceeded to rip through the remainder of the regular season, earning his 4th scoring title with 34 goals and 39 assists in 54 games.
At the end of the regular season, Metallurg Magnitogorsk earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference under first-year head coach Mike Keenan (read this amazing story of Iron Mike's adjustment and success coaching in Russia). They were followed by Barys Astana, Bars Kazan, Salavat Yulaev, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, Sibir Novosibirsk, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, and the newcomers Admiral Vladivostok in their first season.
Over in the Western Conference, Dynamo Moscow was the top-seeded team, followed by SKA St. Petersburg, Lev Prague, Donbass Donetsk, Dinamo Riga, Medvescak Zagreb (also in their first season), CSKA Moscow, and the sentimental favorites Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, rebuilt from ashes after the demise of the entire team in an airplane crash in 2011. (If you haven't seen it, here is the incredible documentary on the Lokomotiv tragedy aired on NBC during the Olympics.)
You can find all the match-ups and post-season scores here. It didn't all go as expected in the Western Conference, where the heavy favorites fell flat on their faces. In the first round, CSKA Moscow was swept by SKA Petersburg, and as a result head coach John Torchetti's contract wasn't renewed. Also in the first round, #8 seed Lokomotiv Yaroslavl eliminated #1 seed and two-time defending champions Dynamo Moscow in 7 games, blowing them out 5-1 in game 7.
Next up, Lokomotiv took on Ilya Kovalchuk's powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg and eliminated them in 6 games. SKA's GM, head coach Jukka Jalonen and his coaching staff were all promptly fired. (Need I say that SKA is Putin's favorite team, and he doesn't look kindly upon such failures?) Lokomotiv's Cinderella run under late-season replacement coach Dave King, who was one day a developmental coach for the Phoenix Coyotes and the next day on the plane to Yaroslavl, continued all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they eventually lost to Lev Prague.
In the Eastern Conference things went according to script, and top seeds and heavy favorites Metallurg Magnitogorsk advanced all the way to Gagarin Cup finals, where they were set to face Lev Prague. The finals match-up presented several firsts for the KHL. For the very first time, neither head coach was Russian. Mike Keenan has not only a chance to be the first foreign coach to win the Gagarin Cup, but also a chance to be the first coach in history to win both the Stanley Cup and the Gagarin Cup. Also for the first time, a non-Russian club was in the finals with a chance to claim the Gagarin Cup. Lev's success was a good development for the KHL as it will pave the way for westward expansion and more elite non-Russian teams joining the KHL. Finnish team that Teemu Selanne once played for Jokerit Helsinki has already announced it will move to the KHL starting in 2014/15 season.
So on to the finals we go. Despite Metallurg's dominance in the Eastern Conference and the top line of Mozyakin-Zaripov-Kovar ripping a swath through EC's defenses by amassing nearly 50 points between them in 14 games before the finals, this was a much more equal match-up than anyone predicted. Lev took games 1 and 3, with Metallurg winning games 2, 4 and just completed game 5 earlier today.
We will finish where we started, talking, of course, about the incredible Sergei Mozyakin. After scoring both goals (first a beautiful one-timer on a gorgeous pass by Zaripov, and second a long-distance bomb) in today's dramatic 2-1 OT win in game 5, Metallurg's captain and sorcerer-in-chief currently stands at 30 points (11g, 19a) in 19 games this postseason. Metallurg leads the best-of-7 series 3 games to 2, with game 6 scheduled for Monday, April 28.
What I wouldn't give to have this guy on Geno's left wing to do more of these kinds of things (a memory from the days of Mozyakin-Malkin-Kulemin tearing through the league). Alas, it is what it is. Mozyakin is playing for Mike Keenan, and they are doing great things together. Let's hope Geno watched the same thing I did earlier today and feels inspired by his friend and lockout winger.